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Buy, sell or hold: The hardmen of the cobbles

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More prognostication on riders' future in 2017. We turn to the never popular topic of the cobbled classics specialists

Gent-Wevelgem Cycle Race Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos - Velo/Getty Images

People seemed to find the first of these pieces worth a read, and if I know you lot, you’ll find the cobbles more interesting. There are a bunch of riders below and hopefully I’ve covered all the big names as well as some outsiders I have views on, but I’m happy to do others “on request” in the comments, as before.

When I wrote the sprinters column I realised as I went along that I was looking at a broader field of possible winners than in previous years. The theme from this list of riders is harder to identify. One observation is that plenty of these guys have a wicked kick, and if you’re not an accomplished sprinter winning will be tough in 2017.

As ever, I relish mockery, dispute and disagreement. Or praise. Praise would be fine.

Sagan: SELL. I’m on thin ice here, aren’t I? You know what… let’s pick this up with the next rider.

Kristoff: BUY. Okay. Before I lose you all completely, let’s examine these two riders together for a moment. Sagan is a better rider than Kristoff. He’s more versatile, faster, and (based on last year) better on cobbles. He’s an extraordinary, generational talent. He also hit a ceiling last season. The buy/sell/hold grades, remember, are relative to the previous year. In 2016, Sagan retained a world championship and a green jersey, won a monument, a shed-load of semi-classics and stages, and finished on the podium in two WT week-long races.

He also raced competitively in every month of the year, just as he did in 2015. To “buy” you’d have to see him improve on that (how??? More stages in the Tour? Two monuments to go with the WC? A GC victory in Tirenno-Adriatico?). To “hold”, you’re still looking at matching the most dominating season since Merckx’s heyday. If you’re thinking probabilistically, you have to expect some fall in form, some period of injury or distraction or just plain bad luck. That’s before you get into him changing teams and the impact that fame and fortune might have on him.

So if we accept that Sagan’s feats are likely to diminish slightly, who is best placed to benefit? In my mind, it is Kristoff. He’s the obvious foil for the Slovakian in the Flemish races, someone who gets over the Bergs and who you do not want to see with you at the finish. I’ve written about this on my old blog, but he’s also got a World Championship set up for him and will be motivated to win that. I don’t think we’ve yet seen him put together a “career year” and, in terms of “against the odds“ betting value, I consider him a much shrewder bet than a favourite who is already at his peak output.

Degenkolb: BUY. Another rider who is well placed to pick up on Sagan’s wins should they become available, Degenkolb is a bona fide star who raced better in 2016 than I expected, given his awful injuries at the start of the year. There can’t be anyone who begrudged him the late-season success he enjoyed, and with his return to health and a full off-season’s work, he’s on the shortlist of Paris-Roubaix favourites and will be a threat throughout the year. The move to Trek may be a bit of a risk, but he’ll be well supported.

Van Avermaet: SELL. Think of this as regression to the mean. A talented rider who is still in his prime, I think he’ll go well in 2017 and he’s certainly on the shortlist for all the big classics. Shook off the “can’t win the big one” label (which he never deserved) in Rio, and obviously Flanders is the one he wants. He could manage it, but colour me sceptical. I just think there are better riders around – not many, but enough.

Gaviria: HOLD. There’s already been a debate over whether he should be a sprinter or a hardman, but given that his Paris-Tours win came from a km out and he’s shown some classics chops already, I see him in the Boonen/Kristoff/Degenkolb camp rather than the Kittel/Cav camp. I think the Colombian is the most extravagantly talented classics prospect in the field, and I firmly expect him to thrive in coming years, but expecting a growth year in 2017 might just be too much too soon. Partly that’s because he’s yet to ride either Paris-Roubaix or Flanders, and until I see it I don’t believe he’ll be able to cope with riding hard for 250km (he is only 22, remember) and partly it is because there is a pretty crowded field at Quick-Step once again.

Boonen: SELL. There’s a big part of me that would love to see him round out his storied career with a win, but making a rational case for it is hard. He’s lost that last ounce of power that could splinter a group and leave him in a position to win. I’ll be rooting for him but I can’t see him troubling the top ten in the biggest classics.

Vanmarcke: HOLD. I am aware that I’m taking a risk here – I’ve not had writing privileges on this site for very long, and after selling Boonen, I don’t even have the courtesy to buy Vanmarcke. I get that he’s beloved, and I’m sure he’ll be up with the bigs again this year. However, here is my complex analysis of bike racing: to win a race, you need to either finish on your own, or beat the other people in your group in a sprint. The last time Sep did either of those things in a race of any prominence was the Omloop in 2012. Why should 2017 be any different from the last four years? You need an utterly devastating amount of power if you don’t win small group sprints, and there isn’t a

Stybar: HOLD. I struggled with this. A disappointing year in 2016 and I think he has the talent to improve on it, but will be held back by the lack of a clear leader at Quick-Step, I fear. If I were in charge and looking for results, he’d be the clear first choice, but you imagine that Boonen will be given every chance to go out on a high (and quite right, too). The Czech has 2018 to look forward to and will be a valuable wildcard this year. Strade Bianche could be his day again.

Terpstra: BUY. With Boonen and Stybar, the other leader for the biggest team on cobbles, and the one with the best chance of success in 2017, I think. Finished 2016 in good heart, and has years of experience riding with the very best each spring. He’s proved time and again that you can’t give him any gap on the road, yet I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he nicked another big race or two. Quiet in 2016.

Lampaert: BUY. On the days he gets to the finish of a semi-classic, he’s Quick-Step’s best card. Injuries derailed his spring last year but back to his best he’s the one with a kick and you wouldn’t want him in there. Likely to get better support than the more established hard-men/sprinters in this list and should win some races.

Trentin: BUY. On the days he gets to the finish of a semi-classic, and Lampaert doesn’t, he’s Quick-Step’s best card. 27, fast as blazes and still improving, he picked up a stage of the Giro and a few other wins last year, and is only a smidge away from being strong enough when the roads get bumpy.

Roelandts: SELL. I feel let down by Jurgen. I always thought he had a monument in him and it hasn’t happened yet. He’s only 31, but (a shock 3rd in a chaotic MSR aside) it looked like Lotto-Soudal, and the peloton, had rather left him behind last year. Not won a race since 2013.

Benoot: BUY. Oh, and this is why Roelandts has been left behind. An absurdly talented rider, Benoot is only 22. He really is, you can check and everything. There are those who consider 2016 a disappointment given his meteoric ascent in 2015, but there was a lot in there to like and another year’s experience, this time as a marked man, can only help him. He’ll step up again.

Claeys: SELL. I put him on the list because of his successes last year and his move from Wanty to Cofidis, but I think we’ve seen his ceiling and I’m unconvinced he’ll repeat his success from last year. In fact, I don’t even think he’s the most talented classics rider on his new team, because…

Senechal: BUY. Have a look at my blog for details, but he is on the short list for the hardest man in the peloton, and he’ll be given the space to succeed every time Cofidis get involved in Classics racing. Paris-Roubaix is his race, he’s worth a bet, and whilst he’ll need racing luck, he can get involved. He will be hoping that April in Lille resembles January in Edinburgh (I’m writing this in conditions that somehow call to mind both a monsoon and the opening scenes of Alive).

Stannard: SELL. He’ll also be hoping that January conditions persist. He’ll be involved in some of these races but thirds in Paris-Roubaix and E3 last year are great results and he’ll be hard-pressed to match or better them. The won’t always get to ride for himself (as well as the gents below, Kwiatkowski will feature in a following post).

Rowe: BUY. All the same concerns about riding for himself as for Stannard. The difference is, he’s younger, better on the toughest bergs, and has set a lower bar with his performances in 2016. Could nick a win in one of these tough semi-classics.

Thomas: HOLD. Ah, the great lost talent of classics racing. I love watching G on the cobbles and I have included him here out of pure irritation – because it is where he belongs, damn it. As a GC rider, he’s a hold. Winning Paris-Nice set the bar high and I’m unconvinced he can repeat at that level but he should go better in the rest of the season granted more opportunities to ride for himself.

Moscon: BUY. One of the reasons to be enthused by Sky this cobbles season (hush. They really have got a pretty tidy team), this is a precocious 22 year old who can sprint but can also ride the classics. 18th in Strade-Bianche was impressive, but he’s focusing on the cobbles this year and he could easily surprise somewhere. The man on Sky’s roster who’ll be most frustrated that they skip Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Boasson Hagan: I don’t know. HOLD. I mean, he should be a buy, shouldn’t he? But then, you could say that every year. He’s got the talent and the opportunity but I have given up waiting on him to put it all together on the big days. Did you know that his 5th in last year’s Paris-Roubaix was his first ever top ten in a monument? What a colossal waste.

Thwaites: BUY. Impressive all spring last year and was definitely one that I wrote in my metaphoric notebook. He’s moved to Dimension Data and I have mixed feelings about that – as a World Tour team they’ll get him into more big races, but he might not be riding for himself as much. Still, strength will out and I can see him having a few opportunities. Fast and strong enough to take them when they come along.

Boom: SELL. Not quite as talented as Boasson Hagan (pace cyclocross fans – I refer only to road racing), not quite as much of a waste, but it is a shame he’s never made it onto a classic podium. With the speed and talent of the younger riders, I don’t think that’ll change in 2017.

Stuyven: HOLD. Cancellara’s retirement means he’ll have more chances to ride for himself, he thought… then Degenkolb came in. He won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and rode nicely in Montreal and at E3, giving him a high bar for 2017. Aged 24, he’s got time on his side to improve and should be a key lieutenant, at worst, this spring.